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You Say You Want to Teach Some Evolution, Well, You Know …

It is with as much embarrassment as pundits are able to muster that I am forced to acknowledge that the Texas Board of Education may now consider itself vindicated by none other than some school administrators in a town in what is one of the more enlightened (but for its choice of Senator) states in the country. It was but a few weeks ago that this writer mocked Texas for having adopted standards for its science textbooks that contradicted any notion that evolution had affected the board’s members.

Confronted by evolution and global warming the Texas board insisted that its textbooks examine “all sides of scientific evidence” which includes the notion that the earth is but 6000 years old, give or take a couple hundred. The Discovery Institute that doesn’t discover contemporary truths, trumpeted what it called a “huge victory for those who favor teaching the scientific evidence for and against evolution.”

Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist and probably a very good one, who headed the Texas Board of Education at the time of this triumph of rhyme over reason described the decision as winning “the Grand Slam and the Super Bowl.” Not content with such hyperbole he went on to say that: “Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution.”

The school administrators responsible for the Weston Intermediate School, though probably not sympathetic with the successes of the Texas board, have shown that they are sensitive to the feelings of those who are troubled by the thought that they have evolved from forms they find not pleasing to contemplate. Our teacher about evolutionary matters in the Weston Connecticut school district is Mark Tangarone, a teacher in the Talented and Gifted Program (TAG).

Mr. Tangarone has been a teacher in the Weston school system for the last 17 years. His last day of teaching in the district will take place on the last day of the current school year. Mr. Tangarone is leaving because of evolution. His problems with the concept began in 2008.

In 2008 he created a program around the fact that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day in the same year. A part of the program dealt with Darwin’s journey to Australia and Asia and included a discussion about evolution. Mr. Tangarone submitted an outline of the program to Dr. Mark Ribbens who was then the school’s principal.

Dr. Ribbens rejected the proposed program because of its discussion of evolution. In an e-mail, a medium that is an obvious result of evolution, Dr. Ribbens way gave evolution credit for being a “robust scientific theory” that nonetheless provided a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life.” He went on to explain that evolution “touches on a core belief-Do we share common ancestry with other living organisms? What does it mean to be a human being. . . . I know personally that I would be challenged in leading a 10-year old through this sort of discussion while maintaining the appropriate sensitivity to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions.”

Dr. Ribbens concluded by saying evolution was not age appropriate for Mr. Tangarone’s students and said “TAG topics need to be altered this year to eliminate the teaching of Darwin’s work and the theory of evolution.”

Defending Dr. Ribbens, John Drummond and Carolyn Vinton, the Weston curriculum instructional leaders, said that the schools address evolution in what they call a “developmentally appropriate manner”. The lessons are taught in kindergarten and grades 3, 8 9 and 10, as the students themselves are evolving.

Mr. Tangarone appealed Dr. Ribbens’ decision to the Assistant Superintendent, Tom Scarice who rejected the appeal. On February 12, 2010, Mr. Tangarone sent a letter to the school board announcing his retirement because of the censorship of his proposed program. Jerry Belaire, the school superintendent, said that the dispute had nothing to do with teaching evolution but said the 17-year veteran teacher was a disgruntled teacher who did not like being supervised and had been disciplined for attendance issues and insubordinate conduct, charges denied by Mr. Tangarone.

Many Weston parents, having evolved more than the members of the administration, have expressed concern and the school board has vowed to examine the circumstances surrounding the resignation. Dr. Ritter, meanwhile, has apologized for his e-mail to Mr. Tangarone saying: “Some of the things I said were written in the heat of the moment and could be wrong. If so, shame on me.” To that one can only add shame on the administration that attempted to cover up a patently absurd decision by attempting to impugn the integrity of Mr. Tangarone.

As the president of the school board said, speaking of Mr. Taggarone: “On a personal note, both of my children were fortunate to have Mark, and this is a real loss for our system.” That observation suggests that Weston may yet prove itself different from, and further evolved than, Texas.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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